Almost 11 years ago, American McGee’s Alice, a radical reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s beloved Wonderland fantasy realm, was released on PC. Continuing on from Alice Liddell’s last adventure Through The Looking Glass, the intervening years saw the family household go up in flames, leaving her family dead. As a result, Alice’s mind snaps, causing her to be committed to a mental asylum where, ten years later, she’s recalled to a version of Wonderland that’s more twisted, deranged and horrifying than ever before. With the aid of The Cheshire Cat, now hairless, tattooed and pierced, Alice must overcome her madness to defeat the evil Queen of Hearts and restore Wonderland to normality once and for all.
Alice became a critical darling on the basis of its story. The acceptable and mechanically-sound gameplay was outshone by the daring reinvention of a world many gamers had grown up with. Look past the often simple and uninspiring gameplay and you’d find an intriguing world corrupted by the macabre mind of its designer, one worth investing your time in.
So it’s strange to find that, over a decade later, nearly the exact same thing can be said of its sequel, Alice Madness Returns.
Years have passed for Alice and, now living in an orphanage in London, Alice is still plagued by hallucinations. Following a white cat during her rounds to the chemist, she once again tumbles down the rabbit hole into a darker version of Wonderland, where she must defeat the tyrannical Queen of Hearts and save Wonderland – and her mind – once and for all.
The opening cutscenes and initial walk around the streets of London showcase just how visually exciting AMR truly is, with FMVs depicting the tumultuous events of Alice’s mind in appealing paper cutout form and NPCs, even when based in reality, rendered in nightmarish caricature. When you eventually arrive in Wonderland, your environs are still relatively colourful, despite becoming more and more startling as you progress. Despite the events of the last game, many of the previous cast return, including The Cheshire Cat, The Mad Hatter and, of course, the Queen of Hearts herself, all of whom are engaging characters, even if the voice acting – Alice in particular sounds more surprised than anguished – is a bit iffy. You’ll find yourself wanting to go deeper and deeper just to see how dark McGee’s vision can truly get.
Navigating these worlds is made easy by simple and intuitive controls. Movement is sharp and responsive, Alice’s ability to triple-jump makes navigating platforms enjoyable and a range of weapons, including the much-vaunted Vorpal Blade, Pepper Grinder and Hobby Horse make fighting the wide range of ghoulish enemies gratifying. Unique gameplay features, such as the ability to shrink down to diminutive proportions and see otherwise invisible clues to aid you on your journey, add to the game’s overall quirkiness and charm.
Not everything is so rosy the deeper you go down the rabbit hole, though. Before long, after you’ve navigated countless platforms and defeated numerous enemies, you’ll begin to realise just how repetitive AMR truly is. As it’s completely linear, there’s no room for exploration bar the occasional off ramp that winds up in a dead end, meaning events seem more scripted than perhaps they should. There are numerous collectables to pick up, so missing one means there’s no opportunity to go back and claim it, a highly irksome experience for completionists. And while the different areas may vary in theme, each plays host to sparse, bland play areas, meaning that gameplay soon becomes stale and, frankly, rather dull.
But there’s something about such a distorted vision of Wonderland that will have you wanting to fight through the ennui. It might be to see how corrupted the next cherished character has become, to witness how Alice’s mind reflects the events happening in reality or to see whether or not she can ultimately salvage her cracked mind. Something lies beneath the turgid gameplay that will make you want to power through to the end.
And then you hit a brick wall, an impassable trench mired with bad design decisions and awful checkpointing. Take, for example, one underwater section. You must stay in the light of a luminescent seahorse in order to traverse a deep abyss safely. Get too far ahead or lag behind and you’ll take damage, causing you to die and start the entire section all over again. You’ll bludgeon your way through such areas, hoping that in this instance you’ll succeed, only to fail time and time again. It’s not long before you’ll find yourself reaching for your console’s off button in frustration.
Alice Madness Returns is an accomplished platformer. It does what it does well, but it never quite fulfils its potential for greatness. The platforming is sturdy and the combat is solid, but the story, while intriguing, never quite captures your imagination and the odd difficulty spike is enough to render you as mad as a hatter. What you get is essentially the same game as ten years ago, only curiouser and curiouser.
Initially captivating but ultimately nothing more than a flashy pack of cards, this second trip to Wonderland is only recommended for those with great amounts of determination and – more importantly – a sane mind.
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